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Cowboys Need Long-Term View on Contract Restructuring

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Need Long-Term View on Contract Restructuring

You've likely seen projections, including one from this blogger, than Dallas can create as much as $25 million or more in cap space by restructuring some of their high-dollar veteran contracts.  That sounds very attractive on the surface, especially for a team that has spent several years being forced into frugality by past spending sins.  There is no question that Dallas will do some restructuring, but perhaps they need a little more balanced view than what others have suggested.

One player that is guaranteed to have his deal reworked, and rightly so, is left tackle Tyron Smith.  He is still just 25-years-old and one of the best in the business; a fixture at his spot for as long as he's healthy.  Dallas will certainly move money on Smith's contract and have absolutely no reason not to.

Beyond Smith there is at least one red flag on any of the remaining restructure candidates. Let's look at those in more detail and see if the added cap room is worth the additional commitment and risk involved.

The next most likely to be restructured is defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford.  He has five years left on a $45 million contract and is still just 26.  The red flag on Crawford is that his performance dropped off in 2015 after getting the new deal.  He had five sacks despite being the full-time starter. Comparatively, Henry Melton had five sacks in 2014 despite starting just three games and dealing with injuries.  It was assumed that Crawford would blossom as the three-technique tackle in Rod Marinelli's scheme and fell woefully short of expectations.

Dallas is likely going to bank on their original analysis of Crawford and hope that improvements at defensive end and in the secondary will open up his game. However, if they have any concerns about Crawford, restructuring his deal could only prolong the mistake. Next year he counts $9 million against the cap and only creates $6 million in dead money if released, which can be spread over two years. Dallas has a decent escape there if they want to preserve it, but I anticipate that they will double down on Crawford and focus on improving the talent around him.

Let's now take a look at Dez Bryant's contract.  No sooner does he sign the big extension than does Bryant suffer an injury-plagued season.  Turning 28 in November, Bryant's physical style of play means he may not have the longevity of some receivers. Could Dallas be worried about still paying Dez franchise-player money if he can't stay healthy?  Do they want to preserve the option to cut ties if needed?

Dez will count about $16 million against Dallas' cap in 2018 and 2019.  As currently structured, Dallas can cut him with $8 million in dead money in 2018 and just $4 million in 2019, when he'll be 30-years-old.  I could see Dallas opting to leave Dez's contract untouched this year so they can how well he bounces back next season. If he's back to franchise form then they can use it to create space for the 2017 offseason. If not, then they've kept their options open.

Jason Witten has two years left on his deal. It's hard to see a scenario where Dallas doesn't let Witten play out that contract, so I could see them pushing all of his guaranteed money into 2017 to create about $4 million in space for this offseason.  His age is a slight concern but Witten has been freakishly durable and the Cowboys likely won't be worried about committing to him for two more seasons.

Sean Lee is an intriguing case.  He has four years left on his deal and a lot of wiggle room to clear cap space.  However, Lee's awful history with injuries is a major deterrent for Dallas.  Though he's coming off a fabulous 2015 performance, a return of health problems for Lee could push Dallas to release him next offseason.  They would only be liable for $3.9 million in dead money off of a $9.9 million cap hit, giving them significant savings and letting them move on at a key defensive position.

I think Dallas will take the same approach with Lee that I said with Dez, seeing how 2016 plays out before making any contract changes.  If Lee can put together back-to-back seasons of good health and Pro Bowl play then the Cowboys will have a lot more confidence to pull the trigger on a restructure, but even then you couldn't blame them for lingering hesitation.

Lastly, we have to take a look at Tony Romo's contract. Romo is signed through 2019 and Jerry Jones is happy to tell you that they think Romo has many good years left in him.  There's no chance that he'll back that up by redoing Romo's deal, though, until they see how he comes back from the 2015 injuries.

Even as it stands Dallas is probably stuck with Romo's contract until at least the 2018 offseason.  At that point the dead money drops to just $8.9 million (compared to $19.6 million in 2017) and they can find a way to stomach that if needed.  How will two more seasons affect Romo's body, one that already seems to be breaking down? Dallas will have to find out the hard way and can't afford to prolong the suffering.

Today's Cowboys, with Jason Garrett, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay holding more influence than past staffs of Jerry Jones', are more fiscally responsible and big picture oriented than in the past. A past front office probably jumps at the chance to clear all this money and go hard in free agency, looking to maximize the current window of opportunity. Given the age and health concerns of some of the players we just mentioned there is certainly temptation to go that route now.

My best projections are that we will see restructures on Tyron Smith, Tyrone Crawford, and Jason Witten.  I'm on the fence about Dez Bryant and can really see them going either way.  I wouldn't expect it with Sean Lee and am entirely sure they won't do anything with Romo.

Dallas has learned the hard way about mortgaging the future to try and win in the present. It worked in the 1990s but has cost them dearly at a few points since. They have the potential to make a smooth transition from the Romo-Witten Era to the next generation with a solid infrastructure. They need to leave themselves financially flexible to keep their young players around for the next quarterback whenever he takes over, or to keep the talent around Romo strong enough that perhaps he could pull of a late-career championship like we just saw from Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

No matter what the endgame is for Romo, Dallas should maintain the same financial philosophy; stay balanced and avoid as many long-term entanglements as you can. Some players, like Tyron Smith, are worth that kind of commitment.  But how many times have we seen teams, and the Cowboys especially, burned by being overly loyal?  There's a reason that the Patriots stay in contention (aside from the cheating) and it's because they never put loyalty to one player over their long-term goals and financial outlook.

The last few years make it seem that Dallas is on that course. The hard part, especially as desperation creeps in, is to stay on it.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?

John Williams

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Safe to Say, Ezekiel Elliott Not an Offensive Line Product

There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.

It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.

In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.

In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.

In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.

No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.

Per Game Table
Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD
1 Saquon Barkley 2018 2018 16.3 81.7 0.7 5.7 45.1 0.3
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 2017 21.1 94.4 0.6 5.6 42.6 0.1
3 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 21.7 101.2 0.7 3.4 30.0 0.2
4 Todd Gurley 2015 2018 18.0 78.4 0.8 3.2 32.5 0.2
5 Alvin Kamara 2017 2018 10.1 52.0 0.7 5.2 49.5 0.3
6 Christian McCaffrey 2017 2018 10.5 47.9 0.3 5.8 47.4 0.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2019.

Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.

Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.

Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.

No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.

Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.

If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.

One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.

In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.

With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.

The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.



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Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”

John Williams

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Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten's Game?

There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.

Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?

It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.

"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason  (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."

Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW

Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.

Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.

While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.

In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.

They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.

Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.

There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.

If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.

And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.



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Report: Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott Planning Training Camp Holdout?

John Williams

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Ezekiel Elliott: NFL's History with Domestic Violence Shows Inconsistency, Hypocrisy 2

All offseason, the possibility of a new contract for Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott has been a hot button issue among media and fans alike. Not because Ezekiel Elliott isn't a great player and worthy of top running back money, but because the idea of paying running backs north of $15 million a year isn't as simple as, "Is he worth it?"

There is significant evidence that the running back position experiences a significant decline in production around their age 28 season and few running backs play into their 30's with good to elite production. Ezekiel Elliott, though he's experienced heavy usage in his first three seasons, could be the exception to the rule.

Well, knowing his worth to the Dallas Cowboys he's expecting a heavy payday at some point in the next couple of seasons. Elliott is under contract through 2019 and the Cowboys picked up his rookie option for 2020. So, technically, Elliott wouldn't be a free agent until the 2021 offseason. However, much like in the case of Todd Gurley, Elliott's looking to get paid early to maximize his prime years as the Dallas Cowboys running back.

Within the last hour, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk released a report that Ezekiel Elliott is planning on holding out of training camp if he doesn't receive a new contract, per a "league source." It should be noted that Mike Florio has had some missteps in his reporting of Dallas Cowboys news, most notably the perpetuating a rumor that Dez Bryant was caught on videotape doing something at a Wal-Mart, that would have a "Ray Rice type of impact." A tape that has never been discovered or produced and a story that's completely died off since it was originally reported in 2015.

Given the recent news that Melvin Gordon is planning a training camp hold out, it should come as no surprise that Elliott is being mentioned similarly. ESPN even mentioned the idea of Elliott and a looming contractual holdout in a piece earlier today, but their prediction pointed to 2021 and wasn't a report based on fact or a source, but a prediction for next year.

The two-time NFL rushing champ is scheduled to count $7.9 million in 2019 and just over $9 million in 2020 against the salary cap. His salary for 2019 is only $3.8 million. Elliott certainly has earned the right to be paid like Todd Gurley ($14.37 million per year), Le'Veon Bell ($13.13 million per year), and David Johnson ($13 million per year) despite having two more years on his deal.

In looking at the long-term impact of Elliott's contract, I've advocated that if the Dallas Cowboys intend to pay Elliott, now's the time to do it. A contract extension now, that adds three or four more years onto his existing deal would get Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys to his age 28 or 29 season. In a well-structured contract, they'd have opportunities to get out at the back end if Elliott experienced a significant decline in production.

Ezekiel Elliott's contract is going to continue to be a hot button issue until he's either signed to an extension or it's made known that the Dallas Cowboys have no intention of extending him. Currently, there aren't any other sources confirming Elliott's plan to hold out of training camp, which starts July 27th, but it's a story that we'll continue to follow here on InsideTheStar.com.

Update: 7/16/2019 10:42 am.

Charles Robinson, Senior Reporter for Yahoo! Sports provided some insight into the thinking of Elliott and his representation.

It certainly seems like holding out is on the table for Ezekiel Elliott and his representation, but no decision has been made at this point.

Check back with us for updates on Ezekiel Elliott's contract extension. 



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